Rounding Third-PF

Coaches deliver extra-base hit
'Rounding Third' provides level playing field for
sharp exchanges on competition

Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

Many people in our neck of the woods might want to forget about baseball, after what happened last month to the Yankees -- and all last season to the Mets.

But if they can find a spot in their hearts for a little more Diamond Vision, here's "Rounding Third," Richard Dresser's charming, two-character comedy at Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown.

Besides, it's not about major league baseball and its egocentric personalities. It's simply about Little League -- and one of its egocentric personalities.

He's Don, the team's manager, who was once a local celebrity, thanks to his exploits on the field in high school and college. "Baseball got me out of final exams and into bed with girls," he says proudly.

Those glory days are gone. For the last seven years, he's been coaching children -- with the life-and-death passion of a pro.

That drive resulted in a championship last year, though he's quick to credit his assistant coach, Tony. Now Tony's been hired to head another team out of state and Don must find help.

Enter Michael, a good-natured guy who thought he'd "give something back to the community" by coaching Little League. He gives inspirational speeches to the kids, telling them to enjoy themselves because winning or losing is secondary to the learning experience.

So while Don wants the kids to hit fungos, Mike prefers that they have fun. Don't assume, though, that the sensitive guy winds up educating the tough one in this brains versus brawn conflict: Dresser's play isn't as simplistic or formulaic as it might first appear.

Director Carl Wallnau's production moves along amiably, with the speed that some fans would wish on the ballgames they watch.

Osborne Focht is appropriately Neanderthal as Don, barking out commands in a booze-soaked voice to his off-stage Little Leaguers -- and to Mike. ("Don't get all emotional here. We're not women.") Focht beautifully walks the line of being just insulting enough without totally humiliating his assistant. A less effective actor would run the risk of having the audience hate him. Focht's performance is even superior to the one given by the actor who originated the role off-Broadway last year.

Jefferson Arca is Mike, whose chipmunk-cheeked face crinkles in delight as he watches a kid run to the wrong base. Arca, who wears his hair perfectly combed and is clad in a powder blue sweater and pressed khakis, produces an amusing, glassy smile whenever Don says something that is, to his mind, outrageous.

Here, too, in less capable hands Mike could come across as a wimp when spouting platitudes about "a safe and nurturing atmosphere" and how "pressure and discipline will squelch the kids' natural enthusiasm." Arca stands his ground solidly when matters with Don escalate into heated arguments.

"Rounding Third" emerges as more compelling than the average escapist comedy. As Don observes in one of his rare insights, "The only happy people in the world are the winners." If that's true, Wallnau, Focht, and Arca must be pretty happy people.